Claudia sat at her desk, surrounded by an intricate web of green light. At each junction, a small green star pulsed, informing her that her portion of the Time Web was operating smoothly, with no kinks or distortions mucking things up. For once, no-one was fiddling with time, trying to change the past in order to produce what they considered to be a better future.
Claudia rolled her neck, ran both hands through her stiff white hair and reached for her coffee. Only another hour to go and she could leave for the day. Today was her fifty-second birthday. A smile crept over her face. Tania would be waiting at home, with a tasty meal in the oven and a bottle of their favourite wine in the fridge. Claudia still couldn't quite believe her luck, that someone as pretty and lively as Tania fancied her. Long resigned to a single life confined to work, she was still getting used to the idea that love had come into her life at this late stage. It was now exactly three weeks and two days since Tania had moved in to Claudia's apartment. With Tania working from home as a freelance writer, the arrangement suited both of them.
Fifty two years old. Where had the time gone? Claudia couldn't help smiling at the irony. As a Time Manager, who should know that better than herself?
It was thirty years since Time Travel had become fact instead of fiction, and Claudia's tenth as a fully qualified Time Manager. She smothered a yawn. A hint of orange flickering in one of the nexuses had her jerking to attention, but it flashed back to green after only a second. False alarm. Someone had either failed in their attempt to meddle or changed their mind. Claudia relaxed. These days, she was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the appropriate level of concern. Perhaps it was time to think about retiring, spend more time with Tania... after all, she wasn't getting any younger.
Claudia could still remember those early days, when the job was exciting, when she had worked her butt off as Assistant Time Manager and gained her reputation for being as hard as nails. Never a dull moment then, with red stars flashing from one side of the web to the other! It seemed every man and his dog had thought that the world would be a much better place if Hitler was assassinated early on in his career. The number of naive hopefuls Claudia had had to drag back from the brink, kicking and screaming, begging her to let them finish the job...
Then there had been those she'd been unable to salvage. Those, fortunately few cases, she'd had no choice but to terminate on the spot. When the decision had to be made instantly, with no allowance for second thoughts, Claudia found she could make those hard choices without hesitating. "Send Claudia," people would say when they knew the timeline would be tight.
At the time, she'd been proud of her reputation as a cold-blooded machine. Honestly, she had no sympathy for those deluded fools who wanted to change the past. People never seemed to think of the consequences. They just didn't get it. Bad as Hitler had been, you simply couldn't mess with Time. You almost always ended up with something worse.
Older Time Manager's still held up the example of Trump's second term as a warning to new staff. Apparently, in the first version of history he'd been voted out after one term, but then someone had interfered with the timeline—a failed assassination attempt—and just why were people so convinced assassination was the answer to everything, Claudia wondered—and Trump had been re-elected for a second term. With the Time Web still under construction, and the Time Managers not yet fully proficient with their skills, unfortunately no-one had been able to fix that one and they'd had to let it slide.
Hard as the Time Managers worked to keep the Time Web clear and clean, Claudia couldn't help wondering how much else had slipped through. How close was today's history to yesterday's? How would they ever know? She was fairly certain that the key events remained untouched, the Magna Carta, the French and American Revolutions, the two World Wars, even the first women landing on the moon in 1970, but who could say about the small stuff? The individual lives of ordinary people? Only those events likely to have a significant impact showed up on the Time Web.
"Mark my words," prophesized Marvin Williams, the oldest Time Manager. "One of these days the whole thing will come crashing down around our ears. One final straw to break the camel's back. An event either so huge or possibly so small that no-one, not even you Claudia, can repair the damage."
"What do you think will happen then?" asked the youngest Time Manager, eyes wide.
"Who knows?" shrugged Marvin. "Maybe time travel will become impossible... or maybe we'll all be stuck in a time loop, repeating the same events over and over again."
Claudia packed up her desk on the dot of five o'clock and hurried home. She was no longer content to work those extra hours, just to finish off the latest project. No, now she had something better to look forward to, the warm arms of her lover.
Back at work the following day, Claudia sat with a dreamy expression on her face. Last night had been wonderful.
A screaming siren and flashing red light startled her out of her daydream. What the f-? She snapped to attention.
A Code One alert. Something serious was going down. Claudia scanned the web, analysing the timelines to locate the exact moment of disruption. Unusually, this time it was something in the future. Four weeks from today in fact. And right here in Colton. Tight lipped, Claudia strapped on her Time Manager's belt and ran for the blue Time Machine. Her mind raced, shuffling through the forthcoming events she knew were on the calendar. What on earth could be the trigger for this one? To the best of her knowledge, there were no politicians or important people scheduled to visit Colton during the next month. There was a food and wine fair, a flower show and the first day of spring. Hardly earth shattering events.
Inside the Time Machine, Claudia programmed its arrival at the target area for fifteen minutes before the disruptive event. She needed time to discover what was going on.
She opened the door and slipped out into a busy street scene. Shoppers filled the footpaths and cars roared up and down, ignoring the speed limit. Her goggles firmly in place disguised as sunglasses, Claudia scanned her surroundings, searching for the glow which would identify the perpetrator. There! A rather squat-shaped back in the crowd to her right, chunky and thick-waisted. The perpetrator wore a dark cap and a denim jacket but nothing could disguise the faint glow emanating from her body. Claudia began to weave her way forward, glancing around to try and determine what event the perpetrator was attempting to change. But nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Then, suddenly, the perpetrator spun on one heel and stopped right in front of Claudia. Claudia felt the colour drain from her face as she realised she was looking at herself. However, this Claudia looked ten years older, her eyes red-rimmed and swollen.
What on earth had happened?
"It's Tania," the words burst forth. "A hit and run in two minutes and thirty five seconds. We have to save her."
"But-" the protest died on Claudia's lips. Tania!
She remembered the red flashing light on the Time Web, the screaming siren. A Code One event. How could the death of one person, precious as they were to her, personally, be a Code One?
She was a Time Manager, for goodness sake! How could she even contemplate trying to change the past? But... Tania. How could Claudia face the future without her?
For the first time, Claudia felt she understood what drove people to try and change the past. The other Claudia had already turned away and was pushing forward through the crowd, toward someone with dark curls, walking perilously close to the edge of the road. She for one had no doubts. She was going to save Tania, whatever it cost. Claudia knew there would be no arguing with her future self, this was going to be a termination event.
Claudia found herself standing with weapon drawn, without even realising she had done so. For the first time in her career, she hesitated.
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